Five years ago while attending a culinary conference, I had the opportunity to take the exam that Julia took so long ago at the Cordon Bleu. It was a little stressful. But looking back, what a hoot to wing my way through my hero’s cook-it-perfect test.
Happy 100th birthday, Julia. Thanks for the memories.
Most participants looked troubled, their foreheads furrowed, their arms tightly folded across their chests. They watched and worried as chef-instructors Patrick Martin and Kathy Shaw demonstrated a few of the steps needed to complete the recipes. We were at the Cordon Bleu in Chicago, attending an optional workshop offered as part of the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ conference.
Twenty of us (out of about 2,000 attendees) had signed up to cook our way through the three dishes that Julia Child prepared for her 1951 Cordon Bleu final exam in Paris. Julia did it without recipes. We had two out of three recipes written out for us on sheets of crisp white paper. We had recipes for cotelettes de veau en surprise as well as creme caramel. The ingredients for oeuf mollet were written on a chalkboard, but there weren’t any 1-2-3-4 procedures to clarify the process. Just ingredients.
(Julia and “the chicken sisters.”)
At her exam, Julia was handed a typewritten card that listed the names of the dishes.
“Did I remember what an oeuf mollet was? No,” she wrote in “My Life In France” (by Julia Child, with grandnephew Alex Prud’homme; Knopf, $25.95). “How could I miss that? (I later discovered that it was eggs that have been coddled and then peeled.) How about the veau ‘en surprise’? No. (A sauteed veal chop with duxelles, or hashed mushrooms, on either side, overlayed with ham slices and all wrapped up in a paper bag – the ‘surprise’ – that is then browned in the oven.) Did I remember the exact proportions for caramel custard? No.”
Julia wrote that she was stuck and had to make everything up. Studying for the test, she had focused on what she thought were more challenging dishes. She was angry with herself.
“Later that afternoon, I slipped down to the Cordon Bleu’s basement kitchen by myself,” she wrote. “I opened the school’s booklet, found the recipes from the examination … and whipped them all up in a cold fury.
“Then I ate them.”
Julia cooked alone for her exam. We would cook in teams of three. So as the chefs finished their presentation, I looked around the room for two people with relaxed expressions. Elizabeth Allen and Di-Anna Arias of San Antonio, Texas, looked calm and friendly. I knew it could be a lot of fun. So, standing in front of stainless-steel work tables in our starched Cordon Bleu aprons, we formed our team. Allen and Arias work as catering and event planners at Don Strange of Texas in San Antonio. They like to cook and take culinary classes. But it was Arias’ admiration for Julia and her generous spirit that motivated their presence at this event.
We had 1 1/2 hours to make it work. As we chopped and minced, simmered and boiled, chef Martin roamed the classroom. When he saw “students” making errors, he would make eye contact with them, then announce it to the group by voicing a single word.
“Sabotage,” he would sing in his thick French accent, loudly drawing out each syllable, but accenting the last a-a-a-a-g-g-g-u-u-u-h-h-h. The tone was jolly. And often was followed by a suggestion or two.
It was sabotage as one cook chose a shallow skillet to make a Bechamel sauce, a vessel too shallow to correctly beat the warm milk into the roux. Another thought she should add a few egg yolks to her oh-so-hot Bechamel and ended up with what looked like yucky, white scrambled eggs.
More sabotage as one cook boiled her eggs too long and produced hard-cooked instead of the eggs mollet (“soft-hearted” eggs that would be firm enough to peel but fairly soft at the yolk). Encore when mushrooms were too deeply browned.
Chef Martin sang sabotage when he thought I was sauteing veal chops at too high of a temperature. And when Allen’s Cognac and Madeira mixture caught on fire (she calmly covered it with a bigger pot, extinguishing the flames – what a team!).
As the Allen-Arias-Thomas team lined up our finished dishes for chef Martin to see and taste, we knew we had winners. Our oeuf mollet was picture-perfect. Arranged in a shallow ramekin, two soft-cooked eggs sat atop a bed of creamy spinach. They were blanketed with a perfectly caramelized Mornay (bechamel with cheese) sauce.
Despite the chef’s rumblings about over-browning the veal, our chops were moist and delicious, enclosed in puffy packets of parchment paper. The mushroom-shallot mixture that surrounded the meat was seasoned with just the right amount of salt and pepper. And, unmolded, our caramel custards stood tall on the plate; we didn’t want them to look puny, so before baking we filled the caramel-lined molds to the very top with the egg-milk mixture. They had a wonderful texture, soft, creamy and delicate.
We waited for judgment, as the chef shoveled down small bites of our dishes.
“They are very good,” he announced, quickly moving to a sabotage at the next work station.
Leaving the classroom, chef Shaw asked me how it went. I told her that her colleague had decreed our dishes “very good.”
Laughing, she told me that the dishes must have been great.
“He wouldn’t tell you they were excellent, even if they were better than HIS,” she said.
That was OK with us. We’d passed. And we’d eaten the delectable results.
Somehow, we could picture Julia smiling and pouring a glass of wine.
Cotelettes de veau en Surprise (Veal Chops Surprise)
Creme Renversee au Caramel (Caramel Custard)
Oeuf mollet (Coddled and peeled eggs)
(Bring back some happy memories with this video …)